Drahm stays cool to drag Saints back from brink

London Irish 21 - Northampton 22
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The Independent Online

Shane Drahm has been known to lose his bearings in the blast-furnace heat of the Premiership, and lose games for his club as a result. Yesterday, in front of a 17,000-plus audience huddled together in temperatures close to freezing, the Australian outside-half kept his head together, his faculties intact and his radar focused on the three all-important sticks at the London Irish end of the Madejski Stadium. The outcome? A win for the Midlanders that may just drag their season out of the swamp.

Drahm fairly peppered the Exiles' posts in the final dozen minutes or so, landing two penalties from the far side of nowhere to pull Northampton back to within a couple of points at 16-18, converting a more straightforward but critically important shot from the 22-metre line as the game moved into stoppage time, and then deciding the contest with a half-hit drop goal that was almost beautiful in its ugliness. Given the dire quality of the pass he received and the threatening proximity of three London Irish defenders, it beggared belief that he got the ball off the ground.

Had Paul Grayson not been man enough to substitute himself at the interval, Drahm might not have made it on to the pitch at all. Burdened with the role of the player-coach since Alan Solomons was given the P45 treatment last month, Grayson did not look in the best of shape during his 40 minutes of public activity. His first two clearance kicks were charged down, and he went downhill from there. By the time the oranges were being served up, he had suffered enough.

"Paul came in and said: 'Put Shane on now,'" said Budge Pountney, the Saints' non-playing coach, who very nearly missed the debate by getting himself stuck in a lift en route to the dressing-room. "It's a measure of the bloke, isn't it? He knew he wasn't playing as he wanted to play, and he made the call." Would Pountney have made the decision off his own bat? "I would probably have given him another 10 minutes," he conceded.

By winning a Premiership match for the first time in 10 attempts, Northampton are now off the bottom. A follow-up win over Leeds at Franklin's Gardens this Saturday could conceivably elevate them to the giddy heights of eighth. London Irish, meanwhile, are a virtual personifaction of the phrase "mid-table mediocrity", and will remain so until they find themselves a cutting edge.

Irish had all the stand-out performers yesterday: Mark Mapletoft was his usual inventive self at outside-half, Mike Catt offered a contrasting set of options at inside centre, Robbie Russell and Bob Casey were the most productive tight forwards on view. They had the lion's share of the territory, too, especially once they made sense of the line-out following a shambolic opening quarter. Yet there was not so much as a hint of an opening for Paul Sackey or Justin Bishop, still less a meaningful full-back's thrust from Michael Horak. It is difficult to know what the Exiles do with all the momentum they generate, but it sure isn't much.

Anything as intoxicating as a try was way beyond their capabilities. Roland Reid, once the great hope of Scottish rugby but now a jobbing No 8 in the Thames Valley, might have found his way over the Northampton line had Mapletoft's diagonal kick bounced more kindly for him, but that was the extent of the threat. Almost inevitably, the only five-pointer of the day went to the visitors, Mark Robinson intercepting an inside pass from Mapletoft and scuttling 50 metres to the line with his opposite number, Paul Hodgson, in hot pursuit.

It was not a case of the Exiles being unimaginative, but of them being imaginative in all the wrong places. Drahm's decisive drop goal was a case in point, stemming from a high-risk line-out routine between Russell and Casey at the very fag-end of the match. The routine went wrong, Northampton were rewarded with an attacking scrum, thank you and good night. Percentage rugby? It doesn't exist down Reading way.

London Irish: Penalties Mapletoft 3; Drop goals Mapletoft 3, Everitt; Northampton: Try Robinson; Conversion Grayson; Penalties Drahm 3, Grayson; Drop goal Drahm.

London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, S Staniforth, M Catt, J Bishop; M Mapletoft (B Everitt, 76), P Hodgson (D Edwards, 77); D Wheatley, R Russell, R Hardwick, N Kennedy (R Strudwick, 53), R Casey, P Gustard (K Roche, 60), K Dawson, R Reid.

Northampton: B Reihana; J Rudd, B Cohen, M Stcherbina, W Human; P Grayson (S Drahm, h-t), M Robinson (B Jones, 53); S Emms, S Thompson, R Morris (B Sturgess, 54), G Seely, D Browne (E O'Donoghue, 74), R Beattie, C Krige, M Soden.

Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).